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Theodore Roosevelt was a proponent of the sterilization of criminals and the supposedly feeble-minded. In 1913, Roosevelt wrote a letter to eugenics supporter and biologist C.B. Davenport, saying that “society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind."Wikimedia Commons
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Alexander Graham Bell
Telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell helped lead the First International Eugenics Conference in 1912. Bell also published a paper in which he bluntly listed the steps that would prevent the proliferation of the deaf:
“(1) Determine the causes that promote intermarriages among the deaf and dumb; and (2) remove them."Kentucky Digital Library
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Even Helen Keller, surprisingly enough, advocated for the eugenics movement. She once stated, “Our puny sentimentalism has caused us to forget that a human life is sacred only when it may be of some use to itself and to the world."Wikimedia Commons
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Winston Churchill advocated for compulsory labor camps for mental defectives in 1911. The year prior to this, Churchill wrote a letter advocating for sterilization saying, "The unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the Feeble-Minded and Insane classes ... constitutes a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate."levanrami/Flickr
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Activist Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic and she aligned her fight for contraception with the eugenics movement. She stated that “birth control is nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit [and] of preventing the birth of defectives."Wikimedia Commons
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W. E. B. Du Bois
Harvard-educated sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois was a leading
African-American activist and writer — who called for dividing the black community into four groups. He promoted marriage and reproduction within the most desirable group, the “talented tenth,” and wanted to breed out the lowest group, “the submerged tenth."Library of Congress
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Clarence Darrow is known for being the ACLU defense lawyer in the famous 1925 "Scopes Monkey Trial" — in which he defended the teaching of evolution in schools. Unfortunately, he had no personal empathy for the disabled, as he addressed the separate problem of deformed children by remarking, “Chloroform unfit children. Show them the same mercy that is shown beasts that are no longer fit to live."
However, in 1926 he wrote an essay called "The Eugenics Cult", in which he condemned the theory.Library of Congress
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George Bernard Shaw
Celebrated writer George Bernard Shaw explored the biology of eugenics in his political writing. He is quoted as saying, "We should find ourselves committed to killing a great many people whom we now leave living, and to leave living a great many people whom we at present kill." He added, "A great many people would have to be put out of existence simply because it wastes other people's time to look after them."Wikimedia Commons
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Oliver Wendell Holmes
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1902 to 1932, wrote the 1927 Buck v. Bell decision that allowed for compulsory sterilization of the "unfit" in the U.S., stating, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. ... Three generations of imbeciles are enough."Library of Congress
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The famous French explorer Jacques Cousteau was in favor of population control —saying in an interview, “World
population must be stabilized and to do that
we must eliminate 350,000 people per day.
This is so horrible to contemplate that we
shouldn't even say it. But the general situation in which we are involved is lamentable."Marka/UIG via Getty Images
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John Harvey Kellogg
Doctor, nutritionist, and the inventor of Corn Flakes, John Harvey Kellogg also ran a sanitarium. He wrote in the 1913 issue of the Journal of Public Health, "Long before the race reaches the state of universal incompetency, the impending danger will be appreciated ... and, through eugenics and euthenics, the mental soundness of the race will be saved." Library of Congress
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Long before the eugenics movement, Greek philosopher Plato wrote, "The good must be paired with the good, and the bad with the bad, and the offspring of the one must be reared and of the other destroyed; in this way the flock will be preserved in prime condition."Wikimedia Commons
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Prominent British economist William Beveridge remarked in 1909, "Those men who through general defects are unable to fill such a whole place in industry are to be recognized as unemployable ... with complete and permanent loss of all citizen rights – including not only the franchise but civil freedom and fatherhood."Wikimedia Commons
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Alice Lee Moqué
Alice Lee Moqué was an American newspaper correspondent, photographer, and suffragist. She also supported sterilization of certain genetic undesirables, such as those with hereditary illness in their bloodline.Wikimedia Commons
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Co-founder of the London School of Economics, Sidney Webb carried out research in the 1890s confirming the high fertility of the improvident — whom he described as "degenerate hordes … unfit for social life."Library of Congress
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British biologist Francis Crick is quoted as saying, "in an attempt to solve the problem of irresponsible people and especially those who are poorly endowed genetically having large numbers of unnecessary children ... sterilization is the only answer."Wikimedia Commons
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Robert Foster Kennedy
Neurologist Dr. Robert Foster Kennedy stood up before the American Psychiatric Association in 1941 and told them, "I am in favor of euthanasia for those hopeless ones who should never have been born-Nature’s mistakes."Wikimedia Commons
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English economist Thomas Malthus, who died before the eugenics movement truly took hold, believed in eugenics because he was concerned about food shortages. He once noted, "The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man."Wikimedia Commons
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In the American Child Health Association’s Child’s Bill of Rights, Herbert Hoover made the statement, “There shall be no child in America that had not the complete birthright of a sound mind in a sound body."U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
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Scientist and peace activist Linus Pauling was forced to defend his eugenics position in 1972, well after the height of the eugenics movement, when a woman at Michigan State accused him of promoting racism. (Pauling had said carries of genetic diseases shouldn’t procreate.) He replied, "It's alright for her [a mother] to be allowed to determine the extent to which she will suffer, but she should not be allowed to produce a child who will suffer. This is immoral. It is wrong to produce a little black child who will lead a life of suffering. I would say this is not racism. I advocate the very same thing to ... all kinds who carry these abnormal genes."Oregon State University/Flickr
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John Maynard Keynes
Even after World War II, economist John Maynard Keynes supported eugenics, population control, and migration restrictions as Director of the British Eugenics Society. He asserted that eugenics was, "the most important and significant branch of sociology."International Monetary Fund/Wikimedia Commons
21 Historical Figures You Didn’t Know Supported The Eugenics Movement
The eugenics movement will forever be associated with Adolf Hitler, whose quest to build an Aryan master race during the 1930s and '40s culminated in the extermination of millions.
However, Hitler wasn't the first to champion the idea of wiping away humans deemed to be unfit. In large part, he actually took inspiration from the United States. As Hitler remarked in 1924's Mein Kampf, "There is today one state in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but the United States."
The popularity of eugenics and related ideas in the U.S. (as well as Western Europe) at the time was in part a reactionary response to increased industrialization and immigration. The latter was on the rise and cities became more crowded as people moved to be closer to work. And with supporters of the early eugenics movement believing that people inherited traits like feeble-mindedness and poverty, this meant to them that society had an obligation to thin this growing herd.
Moreover, Western eugenics was an outgrowth or racist and colonialist ideologies. Pseudosciences (like phrenology, for example) allowed some whites to "scientifically" justify their bigotry — and then take things a step further by claiming that "lesser" races needed to be phased out. In this way, Social Darwinism became a means to construct a supposed hierarchy of race — and ensure that white people (and their genes) remained the ideal.
Fittingly enough, eugenics actually has some of its roots with Charles Darwin. His theories about "survival of the fittest" inspired his cousin, Francis Galton, to start the eugenics movement as the world would come to know it (and coin the word "eugenics" itself) in the late 19th century.
From there, eugenics actually enjoyed a period of mainstream popularity in both Darwin and Galton's native England as well as the U.S. and elsewhere in the late 19th century and early 20th. Both abroad and in the United States, proponents of the eugenics movement believed it a Caucasian responsibility to Westernize other civilizations. This was coupled with the idea of producing fewer, better children who would create a better race, and cure many economic and social problems.
Before Hitler took eugenics to its deadly extremes, more people than you might think considered at least some eugenics-related ideas to be completely legitimate — despite their serious moral implications. Eugenics was something that many prominent people once supported, whether vocally, financially, or politically. Presidents, economists, activists, and philosophers — many of which you'd never think would be supporters — all once spoke out in support of the eugenics movement.